You don’t have to be an expert on the collapse of Detroit, which I’m not, to know it’s really bad. In fact, does modern world history include any other city once this big (1.87 million at its peak) losing two-thirds of its population?
And you don’t have to be an expert in social policy, which I’m not, to know that the United States wouldn’t let this happen if it cared.
Detroit’s condition has bobbed into the national news now and then. There was a flurry of reporting on the infant mortality rate, which hit 15 per 1,000 live births in 2012, higher than any other U.S. city, according to Kids Count. Reporters then observed the odds of surviving to age 1 are better in Thailand, Mexico, or China. The better comparison is to urban areas rather than whole countries. Detroit’s infant mortality is more than three-times the rate in urban Cuba or Poland, or London; twice the rate of urban El Salvador, Bulgaria, Chile, or Moscow; and a little higher than urban Azerbaijan.
Here are six more demographic indicators of the condition of Detroit, from data collected by the Census Bureau*, and then a few pictures.
1. Population decline
This is it, in a nutshell:
A drop in population of 64% since 1950, during which time the city’s population shifted from 16% Black to more than 80% Black. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, which I’m not, to suspect this is not a coincidence.
Of course, Detroit isn’t the only city to fall on hard times. But there’s nothing like this. Here’s that drop in percentage terms since 2000, with the other big cities for comparison:
2, 3. Young adults not in school or employed, and births to unmarried young women
I put these indicators together because they are so closely intertwined:
Detroit’s unmarried women under age 25 have birth rates more than ten-times higher than those in San Francisco or Seattle, and more than twice as high as those in Chicago or Philadelphia. The percentage of young adults in Detroit that are neither employed nor in school is four-times higher than in San Francisco or Seattle, and 9-points higher than the closest city, Cleveland. The exclusion or isolation from the institutions of school and employment is both cause and effect of high birth rates for young, unmarried adults. (Of course, the long-run collapse of the city cannot have been caused by young adults’ fertility behavior.)
4, 5. Marriage and divorce
Chronic economic hardship and uncertainty both limit options for long-term partners and stress existing marriages. Detroit has the lowest marriage rates, and the highest divorce rates, of all the major cities I could include:
6. Early widowhood
For people who get married and don’t divorce, widowhood is inevitable. If widowhood at young ages is common, besides the heartache of the loss itself, it undermines the perception of security associated with marriage. At least I expect it would.
We can calculate widowhood rates using the American Community Survey, which asks each person surveyed whether they were widowed in the previous year, in a sample large enough to assess widowhood by age in major cities (this great data collection is unfortunately set to be cancelled: please see here.)
Early widowhood has no formal definition, so I arbitrarily chose ages 40-59:
The early widowhood rate in Detroit is more than five-times greater than San Francisco’s, and it’s substantially higher than the rates in other, more demographically similar, cities as well.
So, from the demographer’s sanitized, data-driven vantage point Detroit’s collapse is excruciating enough. To get deeper you could read many books, with titles including The Origins of the Urban Crisis, The Last Days of Detroit, and Detroit: An American Autopsy, or “Detroit’s wealth of ruins” in Contexts. And of course you could go to Detroit, if you’re not there already.
But thanks to the amazing investment of capital and creative technological innovation that Google has put into Street View (but which there’s apparently not enough of in the world to get Detroit back on its feet), you can drive your web browser around the streets and see for yourself.
Google even allows you to see multiple images of the same location from different passes of the Street View Car. So I was able to look up houses in Detroit available for sale at $1, and then turn back the clock to see their environs up to four years earlier. Here are some of the results. Each of these is a series of three images, from 2009, 2011, and 2013.
In 2009: neat houses, well-tended lawns. The one on the left does have plywood over the side window.
In 2011, there’s been a fire in one, but the others look occupied.
By 2013, the burned out house has been partially boarded up. Now the one on the left looks empty — open windows and door, the gutter has been stripped, and the lawn is overgrown.
A charming site in 2009, with no apparent distress.
Two fires later, in 2011, it’s a different story.
And by 2013 the block is on its way to wildlife reclamation, though the residents in the first house may be holding on.
Finally, a site that is in bad shape already by 2009. The one on the left still has a grill on the porch and trash cans, and the grass has been cut, but those open windows aren’t good.
By 2011 they’re both boarded up. And now the porch lumber on the left has been stripped, as has the metalwork from the porch on the right.
The 2013 photo shows the houses have been un-boarded. Not much left here.
The photos here are not original or deeply revealing. If anything, they illustrate how easy it would be for anyone actually interested in this outsized human catastrophe to observe it unfolding.
The demographic data set the context for life in Detroit. Rates of population decline, social isolation, divorce, and widowhood are observable and become part of the consciousness of the population. These harsh demographic facts are sort of like living next to an abandoned, burned out house. They’re warnings about the uncertainty of the future as well as the hardships of the present. (How those warnings affect social life and interaction, how they are internalized, is something we should study more.)
In light of these potent markers of social crisis — so obvious to so many people who live in Detroit — the willful lack of attention or compassion from the U.S. government, and the obliviousness of the mainstream culture, must feel as cold as it looks. With what consequence? Not to over-dramatize — well, to over-dramatize — but it’s almost like leaving a Black body in the street for four hours, and then feigning surprise when someone accuses you of not caring about his human life and death.
* Data note: These calculations require analyzing microdata from the American Community Survey. Usually I use metropolitan areas, which include central cities and their linked suburbs. But for this I’m using the IPUMS city categories, constructed from Census geographic codes, because the city is the story. The data matches aren’t perfect, and some cities aren’t included (such as Houston and Dallas), and I’m not expert on Census geography, but I looked at this enough to be confident I’m not missing anything that would disturb these patterns much.